"I'm sorry, do you speak English?". It must be the tenth time that I ask a local passerby this question, with the same result: Nobody understands me. All the confidence that has been growing, especially after the last few days in Malaysia, when I was all by myself, is now gone. Even the people who work at the Beijing Capital Airport did not understand me, but at least in airports you usually find other foreigners who speak English, like that Canadian couple that helped me to get to a station called Xidan. From there, the couple had to go another direction. "Yes, I will be fine from here", I said, not wanting to disturb them. And now here I am, by myself, lost somewhere in China's capital, in the midst of the journey of my life, where I am supposed to find myself, and I cannot even find a damn hostel!
"Excuse me, do you speak English?", I ask the next person, and he keeps walking. As I see kids coming back from school I realize that it is about to get dark. A tricycle driver waves at me. For a while I ignore him, because I am sure that he is going to overcharge me. Soon I realize that I don't have any alternatives. The taxi drivers won't understand me either and probably charge me much more. Even if the tricycle driver will greedily ask me for a couple of Euros, at least I have the chance to find a hostel or a place where people can speak English.
So, as I sit down on the tricycle, I try to explain to him what a hostel is. Of course he doesn't understand one word. But he continues driving, until we end up in a narrow alley, where I don't see anything that looks like a hostel or hotel. Instead, I see his friends waiting. The driver then asks me for 6000 Yen. "What? Are you crazy?" - That's like 50 Euro. Now I get angry and tell them that they can forget about it and signalize that I am ready to fight. The local tricycle drivers try to calm me down and are apparently amused. In the end they are fine with 200 Yen, on which I agree, because I am too exhausted, hungry and tired to discuss.
Back on the main street I uncomfortably try to sit down on my 25 kilogram luggage. It is already dark. In Kuala Lumpur, I found the hostel where I wanted to stay so easily. I didn't expect it to be a big deal here in Beijing either. The hostel where I was planning to stay here in Beijing is very close to the Forbidden City. Stupid me, I had no idea that the Forbidden City is that big, occupying 720000 square meters. Well, too late, I should better think about what to do now.
From the distance I see a Chinese man wearing a suit appearing out of nowhere. I have asked people here a dozen times now if they speak English, so I don't even bother to ask him. But the man keeps walking into my direction and keeps looking at me. As soon as he is close enough, he asks me in English: "Where are you going?" - "I need a hostel", I reply. The man immediately stops a taxi, asks me to get inside, enters the taxi as well and gives the driver some instructions. "What is your name?" - "Shahab, and yours?" - "Li Weng". After a couple of minutes we reach the Tiananmen Square, where we get off. Li Weng pays the taxi driver and carries my luggage until we reach a hostel. He goes inside with me, makes sure that I have checked in, gets a piece of paper and a pen, writes down his contact details and says: "If you need anything, call me" and disappears as fast as he came.
Very briefly I enter the dorm room that I have booked to drop my luggage. Here I see a Brazilian guy. "Hey, how are you doing?", I ask, but apparently, the Brazilian doesn't speak any English. Never mind, I get used to people not understanding me. Back at the reception, I order something to eat. While waiting to have dinner, I take a look around in what is only the second hostel where I am staying. How convenient these hostels are for travellers, I realize especially while looking at a wall that is filled with a lot of useful information, most notably a variety of tour offers. On each day of the week there is a different tour organized by this hostel. On one poster I see the one sight that is the main reason why I have come to China. It says "Simatai". The tour will begin tomorrow morning at five. Fortunately, at this hour I am still able to book the tour, although it is already past midnight.
Once I finish my dinner, I make my way to the bathroom, where I accidentally catch a couple making out in the shower. As they get out, they simply smile at me and keep walking. People in hostels seem pretty relaxed and easy-going, I begin to think and head to the terrace, where I see a group of travellers sitting on a table and drinking. An American girl called Rose asks me to join them, which I gladly do. After briefly introducing myself, I grab a beer and stay quiet for the most part, curiously listening to the stories that some of the experienced travellers around me are sharing, and realizing how much I still have to learn. I have a feeling that I can especially learn from Rose, who has been living in Beijing for a while and can actually speak Chinese, breaking the clichee of Americans not knowing anything about the rest of the world. There is very little I know about the Chinese language, but what I know, I always found fascinating, such as the fact that one word can have up to five different meanings depending on your intonation, since Chinese is a tonal language. "In our language, the word 'niga' means 'you' in many contexts. It's a word we use all the time", a Korean traveller explains to us, once we talk about cultural misunderstandings. "Just imagine what can happen when a group of Korean people is hanging out with a group of black people for too long", another traveller says, causing laughter. Not much later a guy from Nepal joins us to share his ideological views and his perception of the Western world, explaining how for people like him it is such a natural thing to follow a leader, to obey authority. Individualist ideals and striving for freedom, in his eyes, is something completely absurd.
It feels good and refreshing to be in this environment, where the most differing personalities can come together and yet have this common interest of travelling. I don't know when the last time was when I was surrounded by so many people who are so open-minded about other cultures, languages and mentalities, but I am pretty sure that this is not my last time in a hostel. Although I wish I could stay longer with the group, I am tired and will only have a few hours of sleep before the tour will start, where for the first time in my life I will get to witness one of the seven modern wonders of the world.
The next morning we have a three hour ride that takes us to one of the places that I have been anticipating the most on this around the world trip. It is too early for most of us, especially for the guy who is asleep sitting in front of me. His head repeatedly and loudly bumps into the window while we drive, but he is so tired, not only doesn't he seem to care, but he doesn't even wake up, causing amusement and laughter among some passengers in the bus. Soon thereafter we stand in front of the wall, which much like many other worlds on this planet, was built out of fear, in this case the fear of various invaders throughout Chinese history, most notably the fear of a Mongol invasion. This fear was apparently so big that the wall had ultimately reached an unbelievable overall size of over 20000 kilometres, making it the longest man-made structure in the world. The first hike of my travel adventures takes place on the Great Wall of China.
Unlike Badaling, the most touristy section of the Great Wall, there are not many people in Simatai. Many parts of the wall here have not been restored and still date back from times when everybody was scared of the Mongol Empire and even earlier times. It doesn't take more than an hour until we reach those parts of the wall that are either steep, heavily damaged or both, all of which we manage to overcome. Whenever we reach the next watchtower, often situated on the peaks, the view reminds us of the incredible length of the wall. Distracted by a local farmer who is showing me around for a while, I soon notice that I cannot see anyone from my group. "Péngyǒu, zǒu ba!", the farmer says with a desparate smile. He taught me earlier that this means "let's go, my friend", but I don't want to get lost again. The only other person that I see is this guy carrying a red bag and wearing a black shirt, but I haven't seen him in the bus. Nevertheless I start to have a talk with him. The traveller from Australia, whose name is Paul, tells me that he doesn't know where his group is either. Since we are both on the same boat, we decide to hike together and climb up the next watchtower of the wall.
"It is getting late. We should make sure not to miss the bus back to Beijing.", I say to Paul while reaching the next peak. The next moment, I totally forget about what I said, as we look down on
the green lake of Simatai and the Sky Bridge, which connects the Beijing Watch Tower with the Fairy Tower. “I guess we have to cross that bridge”, I say to Paul, pointing at what from up here it
looks like a rope. The bridge, as we would figure out after getting down, is a hundred meters long, but only 40 centimeters wide. Once we manage to cross that bridge, we continue enjoying the
views on the lake from the Fairy Tower, until I realize that our bus is about to depart and there is no chance that we make it on time. Would they wait for us? Would they search for us? If not,
how do we get back?
“Look! we can do ziplining here.”. As I look at the steel ropes and a rather improvised looking device that is supposed to take us to the other side of the lake, I apathetically reply: “Probably it is too expensive”, so I don't have to think about whether I want to do this or not. The high price might be enough reason for Paul not to do it either. “Let me ask them!”, he says and walks over to the woman who sells the tickets, while I continue looking down on the lake, thinking about how I would simply drown if something would go wrong with this amateurish looking harness, because I cannot swim. On the other side of the lake I can see some boats.
“Man, it’s only 150 Yen! We’ve got to do it!”, he says excited. "You know, I have never done this before", I confess to him. I look at the primitive looking carabiner. The ride is probably so cheap because it's not safe. "Look, you see that? There are boats on the other side of the lake, and the boats will take us to the restaurant, where our bus is." - Paul does have a point. We are running out of energy and water, and if we try the zipline, we will save the time that we need to catch the bus back to Beijing. "You say you have never done this before? You have never travelled around the world before either, and now you do it! This is the right time to do it!", Paul argues, “This is a moment, we will not forget!”, he adds, as I look down the abyss, for a moment distracted by the beauty of the lake. I know he is right. This is not what I should do, this is what I need to do. “Let’s do it!”.
It is one of the most thrilling moments of the journey, as the zipline takes us to the other side of the lake. And suddenly I feel like the ride was way too short. How I wished we could do that all over again. Minutes later, Paul and I are on the same boat, this time literally, on our way to the restaurant, where we can see that our buses are still waiting. Paul and I wish each other good luck in our journeys, as we enter our buses and head back to Beijing.
In the hostel, everybody is in a good mood. One of the reasons is probably the free beer that we get here tonight. But even apart from that, the positivity that I find here among all the travellers is contagious. Because I want to feel more of Chinese culture, however, I soon leave the hostel for a while, agreeing on joining the group to go to a bar later tonight. When I was in Kuala Lumpur, although the city's Chinatown is usually on a traveller's to-do-list, I didn't feel any regrets not visiting Chinatown, because I knew that I was about to visit China country. And now, here in Beijing I finally have one of those feelings I had been craving for, a feeling that I hadn't felt that intensely on this entire trip so far, the feeling of being in a different world, where nothing reminds you of anything from your usual environment.
The Forbidden City
Because Facebook is banned here in China, the next morning I write my brother an e-mail to let my family know that everything is fine. "You know, one of the reasons that Facebook and also Youtube are banned here is to make sure that all the secret information on Tibet stays a secret", Locha,n the Korean guy that I met yesterday explains. He decides to accompany me to the Tiananmen Square. On the way he gives me some more insights, for instance on the Communist era here in China, when everybody had to eat the exact same food, an initiative that Mao Zedong, the infamous Communist leader at that time, called "Great Leap Forward", leading to what experts consider to be the greatest famine in history.
In an underground passage, everybody's bags and valuables are being scanned and inspected pretty much like in an airport. It is the passage that leads to the Tiananmen Square. All I know about this place is that in 1989 peaceful protests ended tragically with hundreds or thousands of casualties, depending on which sources you believe. Lochan told me earlier that nowadays, here in Beijing people will simply get arrested if they start any protests in which more than forty people participate.
On my final day in Beijing, I climb up the summer palace to have one last view on the Forbidden city and all its wooden structures, with all their curved roofs, arguably the most prominent features of Far Eastern architecture. According to UNESCO, with nearly one thousand in total, the Forbidden City has the highest concentration of wooden structures in the world. An impressive sight from up here, in spite of all the smog, for which this city is unfortunately known as well. Earlier today day I was finally inside of the Forbidden City to have a closer look at the different halls and various objects of prestige or symbolic meaning such as the throne in the Palace of Heavenly Purity or a cistern in the Hall of Surpreme Harmoney. As I observe the halls and objects, as well as the visitors here, who predominantly come from other parts of China and neighbouring countries, I conclude that China remains a mystery to me. Nevertheless, as I slowly prepare for the next destination, I feel grateful for having had this opportunity to gain my first impressions of this country, and for having been able to create moments that will last forever, especially the Simatai experience. Now that I have walked on the world's longest man-made structure, I am eagerly anticipating the next destination, where I hope to enter the highest man-made structure in the world.